Understanding Negligence Standards in FELA and the Jones Act

Most injured workers are protected by state workers' compensation systems. Under these programs, employees make a trade-off. They don't have to prove their employer's action or inaction led to the injury, but in exchange, they sacrifice the right to sue for damages. That is, the injured party does not have to show employer negligence to receive benefits.  

Things are a little different for those who work on the nation's waterways or railroad lines. Unlike workers' compensation, the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), which covers railroad worker injuries, is not a no-fault system. Neither is the Jones Act, which protects workers who serve aboard water-going vessels, and was modeled on FELA.

Under FELA and the Jones Act, negligence matters. So how exactly do courts handle employer negligence in these cases? Here are a few things everyone who works on a railroad or a waterway should know about the concept of negligence in FELA law and within the Jones Act:

  1. FELA and the Jones Act reject the common-law doctrine of contributory negligence in favor of the more employee-friendly system of comparative negligence. Contributory negligence holds that if an injured party helped to create the conditions of injury, that person gives up any right to damages. FELA ushered in the notion of comparative negligence, which has led to a system of percentages of fault that can reduce injury awards but do not remove them entirely.    

  2. No amount of employer negligence is too small to pursue a claim under the Jones Act and FELA. This is one of the most beneficial innovations FELA introduced to workers in the U.S. The language of the law states that an injury "resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees" of a railroad company is eligible for the payment of damages.  

In 2011, the Supreme Court clarified the meaning FELA's "in whole or in part" language in CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride, 564 U.S. 685. Any amount of employer negligence, "no matter how small," that contributes to the conditions leading to injury introduces some liability.

3. Negligence on the part of any railroad employee invalidates claims that the injured worker knowingly accepted workplace hazards, and therefore has no right to damages. This is another common-law doctrine surrounding negligence that FELA stands on its head. Assumption of risk is related to the idea of contributory negligence; if workers understands how dangerous a job is, and chooses to take it anyway, they can't ask for restitution when they get injured.

FELA takes pains to refute this doctrine for railroad workers. Injured employees "shall not be held to have assumed the risks of...employment" in FELA cases. They are free to seek damages even if they knowingly accept a dangerous task — provided the employer has demonstrated even the slightest hint of negligence.      

The Federal Employers Liability Act was written specifically to protect workers from legal defenses then enshrined in common law. As a result, the treatment of negligence under FELA and the Jones Act tends to be friendlier to employees, and tougher on employers.

Legal scholars continue to argue over the justice of these laws and where court interpretations should take them in the future. For now, though, one thing is for sure: Injured workers often get a better deal through FELA and the Jones act than those who must rely on workers' compensation instead.